Conference Championship Quick Thoughts

Scattered stats and thoughts regarding the 2012-13 NFL Conference Championships…

San Francisco 28, Atlanta 24
Adjusted Yards per Play: 7.90 – San Francisco, 6.70 – Atlanta
AY/P Projected Point Totals: San Francisco 28.78, Atlanta 31.59
Quick Thoughts:
1. For the first time ever, I felt sorry for Matt Ryan yesterday. The result ended up being a San Francisco victory after Atlanta scored the first 17 points of the game, thereby becoming the greatest comeback in NFC Championship history and likely further tainting the Falcons’ already-poisoned postseason image for the considerable future. And as someone who has hated the Falcons’ guts in the past and will likely hate their guts in the future, I will admit to being more than amenable to yesterday’s outcome. The problem is, as the face of the franchise, Ryan will likely bear much of the blame for the loss, particularly from the Atlanta fans who have never quite forgiven him for not being as exciting as Michael Vick. This would be an acceptable scapegoat election if Ryan hadn’t played the best game of his life or something close to it yesterday, but he did. His one major mistake was dropping the perfect shotgun snap from his center and subsequently getting out-wrestled for the ball by Aldon Smith when Atlanta was driving in San Francisco territory in the third quarter. Rex Grossman was snickering at that.
2. Outside of that play, however, Ryan carved up one of the two or three best defenses in the league to the tune of 396 yards, 9.21 Net Yards per Attempt, three touchdowns and one interception that occurred when Roddy White fell down. Julio Jones’ second touchdown catch in the back corner of the end zone required some amazing leaping and body control, but he would never have had a chance to make that great catch if Ryan hadn’t thrown him open. The Falcons ultimately came up short on their last real drive of the game, but they would never have gotten close if Ryan hadn’t made several tight, contested throws for first downs. San Francisco just played phenomenal pass defense.
3. The bigger issue was that, because Ryan had fumbled that snap away in the third quarter, the Falcons needed more than a field goal to win. And as we covered in the NFC Championship preview Thursday, if you had to bet your life on one home team coming through with a game-winning field goal on the last drive of the game, it would be the Falcons. I’m positive that 70% of their practice time during the week is devoted just to those situations. So if Ryan holds onto that snap like a normal person, Atlanta probably gets at least a field goal out of the drive and thus would only need a field goal at the end of the game. That’s shooting fish in a barrel for them. But a four-point deficit? HOLD UP NOW WE GOT SOME REAL ISSUES HERE.
4. And, of course, the biggest reason the Falcons lost was because they couldn’t remotely slow down the 49ers after their first two possessions. The jerseys and helmets may have looked different, but the outcome was largely the same for Atlanta’s defense as it was last week against the Seahawks. Seven days after Marshawn Lynch ran through gaping holes in the Falcons interior and Russell Wilson tore up their secondary on corner routes to his tight end (Zach Miller), so too did Frank Gore run through gaping holes in the Falcons interior and Colin Kaepernick tear up their secondary on corner routes to his tight end (Vernon Davis). Moral victory for the Falcons: they held Kaepernick to 159 fewer rushing yards than what he gained against the Packers. And moral victories always count for so much once you reach the NFC Championship.

5. It took me a long while to get on the 49ers’ bandwagon this year – you may remember a certain 6.9 win projection coming out from these parts around August that started looking ridiculous around late September – but it became clear around the midway point of the season that this was clearly the best team in the league if you disregarded the quarterback position. And given how well Alex Smith was playing before he got Wally Pipped by Colin Kaepernick in November, maybe they would have still made the Super Bowl without making the switch around Thanksgiving. But Kaepernick definitely lifts this team up a level with not only his speed (which is well-celebrated at this point) but also his ability to make strong throws into tight coverage. He made several such throws yesterday over the middle for critical first downs, throws that Smith was not often eager to make. To win the Super Bowl, you have to consistently complete passes over the middle. Ryan’s last incompletion to Roddy White in the fourth quarter illustrated that truth in a heartbreaking way for Atlanta.

Baltimore 28, New England 13
Adjusted Yards per Play: 6.14 – Baltimore, 3.76 – New England
AY/P Projected Point Totals: Baltimore 31.14, New England 22.02
Quick Thoughts:
1. The AFC Championship preview on Friday made a big deal about how Baltimore seems to be the only team in the AFC that can beat New England without receiving a lot of help from the Patriots along the way. Well, there’s no question that Baltimore earned its way to the Super Bowl yesterday – Anquan Boldin made everybody remember why he’s one of the greatest receivers who has never, EVER created separation on a route in the history of the league and the Ravens’ defense was prepared from the start for the Pats’ lightning-fast no-huddle offense. There’s also no question that they received a lot of help from the Patriots as well. The Ravens’ shocking blowout win over the Pats in January of 2010 was obviously a worse performance overall, but I can’t remember another time where New England just flat out bungled so many game management situations. Why did they punt TWICE from inside the Ravens’ 35-yard line? Yes, 4th-and-7 and 4th-and-8 are tough first downs to pick up, but they’re the freaking Patriots. If any team in the league should feel that they can pick up eight yards on command, it should be them. Sending out Zoltan Mesko from the 35-yard line is a Mike Tomlin move, Bill! YOU OF ALL PEOPLE SHOULD KNOW BETTER THAN THAT!!
2. Game Management Bungling, Part Two: what exactly was Tom Brady thinking at the end of the first half when he had approximately sixteen seconds and one timeout left? Wouldn’t an experienced field general such as himself find it useful to take that last timeout and throw a couple heaves into the end zone just for the heck of it, rather than half-heartedly bringing his team up to the line and standing around idly for three seconds? Just because the Seahawks got burned last week by taking their last timeout doesn’t mean it’s going to happen to you! Even Phil Simms was calling Brady out for that. That’s like Ed McMahon testifying against Johnny Carson at a murder trial (sorry, couldn’t come up with a less dated reference).
3. Okay, enough of the Patriots. They made things considerably harder on themselves by dropping passes and missing wide-open receivers, but the Ravens ended up putting together one of the best defensive performances New England had faced all year. Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Lloyd wound up with 153 receiving yards combined, but it took 28 pass attempts for the two of them to get there. Before the Curse of Bernard Karmell Pollard struck in the fourth quarter, Stevan Ridley and the rest of his running mates were running at a decent clip and wound up with over 100 yards at approximately four yards per carry, but no Patriot running back had a longer run than nine yards. Outside of the Wes Welker 36-yard catch in the fourth quarter, the longest play the Pats had from scrimmage was 17 yards. The Ravens were outstanding at keeping everything in front of them and not getting burned by big plays, thus proving that conservative yet fundamentally sound defenses can be effective even against the best ball-control offenses in the NFL.
4. How unlikely did the Ravens’ Super Bowl chances look three weeks ago? They’re not exactly the 2007 Giants, but there wasn’t too much statistical evidence supporting a theory that a 10-6 team that had lost four out of their last five games heading into the playoffs and were hovering right around league average on both sides of the ball would turn into the AFC’s representative in the Super Bowl. The eye test, unreliable as it can be on occasion, didn’t do the Ravens any favors, either. Outside of their opening week victory against the Bengals, Baltimore never played a game in which they truly looked like one of the best teams in the league and their disastrous performance in Houston in October seemed to indicate that the only way they’d ever make the Super Bowl would be if they somehow got home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. At the beginning of the postseason, I gave Baltimore a 10% chance of making the Super Bowl and said they had the same shot at winning it all as a normal person does of developing hemorrhoids. I like to think that was what inspired them to upset Denver and New England and not anything Ray Lewis said or did.
5. And, finally…get ready for approximately 356,000,000,000,000,000 HarBowl references over the next two weeks.
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